Strangers on a train
“You have reserved window seat 21 in carriage D,” said my ticket – and as I boarded the train home to Devon on Monday evening there was a hint of anticipation in my step. For when we reserve a seat, ANY seat – whether at a concert or a flight or a train or a match – then we’ve done it for a reason. If I’d not been bothered about where I wanted to sit then I wouldn’t have gone through the online rigmarole of booking it – stands to reason.
There are two reasons why I book a window seat on a train – one, to look out of the window and two, to avoid the cuffing and buffeting by aisle walkers and their luggages.
“Oh dear,” I thought as I approached Seat 21, for it was occupied. The seat next to the occupier was empty, save for a handbag and scarf – presumably hers. She looked up at me as I leaned over to take the reserved ticket from the back of her seat.
“Is this YOUR seat?” I asked.
“No it isn’t,” was her reply. “That’s my seat,” she added, pointing to the adjacent aisle seat.
“I see,” I responded, “But you’re sat in the seat I’ve reserved – here is my ticket.”
“You don’t want me to move, do you?”
Now, there’s generally a normal response given when people are confronted by passengers who have reserved the seat that they are sat in – whether by mistake or by design.
And it is this:
It is a politeness that I was clearly not being afforded by this particular person.
Now it might be because I am a non-argumentative and socially submissive Englishman, who wouldn’t dream of crossing verbal swords with anyone on a train – let alone a lady – that led to what happened next.
I looked at her long and hard as the echoes of her rhetorical question bounced around the immediate vicinity of the carriage. And as I breathed deeply, fixing her with a very laser-like stare, I then sat down next to her – pulled the tray forward, put down my newspaper and pen and sighed – very long and very loud.
And then I was reminded of one of the lines in the 1971 Grammy Award winning song sung by Ray Stevens:-
“Everyone is beautiful – in their own way … “
and thus it was that I realised that all really was well with me and my world. I tackled the puzzle pages in my copy of The Times with gusto and aplomb, whilst my “fellow passenger” seemed mildly unnerved as she was unable to sit still with any comfort. She was very fidgety!
After quarter of an hour or so, the ticket inspector began working his way down the carriage. My “seat swapping” lady started to look for her ticket with some agitation with rather led me to think that perhaps not all was well in her world.
I showed him my ticket and then observed, with a degree of interested curiosity, as she presented him with her ticket.
“That’s not a ticket,” he said. “That’s a seat reservation.” I held my tongue as she handed him another ticket.
“That’s a seat reservation too,” said the inspector. By now I was choking back a chuckle – and I half entertained the thought that maybe she had lost her ticket, or perhaps had never had one in the first place.
“I’ll come back in a moment when you’ve found it,” said the ticket inspector, moving on down the carriage.
She then got in a right paddy with herself – checking her bag, her pockets, standing up and looking in the seat. I half thought she was going to ask me if I would help by standing, just in case it had fallen into where I was sitting, or on the floor. But the thought soon evaporated!
Oh Dear – Isn’t there so much that can go wrong when you’ve upset the Cosmic Applecart by insisting on sitting in someone else’s reserved seat and not your own?
Then the train stopped in a station, and some time passed and the ticket man hadn’t returned. The lady next to me seemed somewhat calmer now, so maybe she HAD found her ticket after all.
One of trademark features of Hitchcock thrillers is the apparent ordinariness of the environments he chooses – for his apparently ordinary characters to meet. Public transport throws together random people in very mundane and insignificant ways – on the face of it!
And here too, for me on this particular evening’s journey, it was all very run of the mill – apart from my unknown companion’s behaviour.
So why have I introduced a reference to some of Alfred Hitchcock’s oeuvre at this point, you may well ask.
It’s about Coincidence, really.
How do we feel about coincidence? Do things really by chance? Is happenstance just THAT?
Or is there much more going on than our imagination can ever imagine? Is truth really stranger than fiction?
I happen to consider that Coincidence is a bed-fellow of that other inexplicably tangible thing called Luck. Like thoughts and trains, they both tend to run along parallel lines.
When they happen to us, we might often wonder whether they were meant to be? And then we go away and delete, distort and generalise anything and everything that will support our beliefs surrounding Coincidence and Luck.
So – were I and my travelling companion this particular evening thrown together at random or were BIGGER forces at play in the direction of this drama?
If she had been sat in her OWN seat then all she would have been required to do was to stand aside and let me occupy my OWN reserved seat by the window.
Equally, if she had done the normally polite thing and vacated my window seat for her own, then what we both experienced would not have unfolded – and I would have not written about any of it.
It might be said that Cosmic Order placed us both in that carriage, at that time.
After that, the drama was played out by each of our behavioural choices.
And, probably because I acquiesced to her insistence to stay where she was, all proceeded without much more ado.
Our behavioural choices are essentially OURS, in spite of some of the compulsions we might feel at the mercy of. As I heard someone say recently,
“I wish I could drive a wedge between my brain and my mouth!” This bears out that illusory nature of our thinking and our self-control. “That way I’d be able to control what I say instead of just blurting out.” Well, all I will say is Good Luck with that!
My final consideration – if Hitchcock’s creative skills are to be believed – is the parallel-ness of the characters in his 1951 film and the two of us “randomly” thrown together last Monday evening.
One of Hitchcock’s characters was a psychopath!